By Christos Makridis
Remote learning might have gotten a bad rap during the pandemic, but education is about to move into the metaverse. And, experts say, it will be better than in-person instruction.
The costs of higher education have been growing, racking up more debt for students, and the post-college economic returns have been flattening. But learning has never been more important, especially in an era of rapid technological and growing automation.
Unfortunately, traditional higher educational institutions are not equipped to handle the scale of the challenge. “The class of institutions we need going forward isn’t fully fleshed out yet,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. “Redesigning research universities will require innovative institutional models that creatively use learning technologies to cooperate rather than compete with other universities, and forming strategic partnerships that include business and industry and government agencies,” Crow said.
But in the interim, new educational technology companies are rising to the challenge. Following a $700 million valuation with over four million people accessing its content, Scaler just announced that it is launching programs in the United States to build learning communities designed for the future of work. “Higher education’s learning environment with physical buildings is not designed to scale,” said Abhimanyu Saxena, co-founder of Scaler.
But designing content that can scale is only one piece of the puzzle. “It is a necessary part, but it is rarely the full picture,” said Saxenda. Researchers have long recognized that a large portion of the economic returns to a college education come from the social and network effects of peers, and these effects can be persistent over time. Scaler uses interactive learning with live lectures to incentivize engagement among their students, coupled with community hubs where students can work and live together for the duration of the roughly one-year program. Students are also matched with mentors who share similar backgrounds but are slightly more advanced in their fields.
Traditional higher educational institutions recruit faculty based on their publication within academic journals. However, all instructors in Scaler are leading practitioners at some of the largest and most profitable technology companies. “It doesn’t work… that is why we have such a scarcity of engineers,” Saxena said. The instructors are practitioners who have a pulse on the latest techniques and demands of the marketplace, providing timely instruction to students.
Software development, cloud technologies, proactive security, information technology automation, and artificial intelligence and machine learning are five of the most disruptive skills demanded by the technology sector, according to a 2020 report by Emsi Burning Glass. “Since our 2020 study, the trends we observed have accelerated… the average job has seen 37% of its top skills replaced just over the past five years but the pace of change has been much faster since the start of the pandemic,” said Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute.
But the skill requirements are increasing across the board. It’s not only a matter of technology change but also a phenomenon of skills intersecting jobs from across domains. Overall, four secular trends are leading this disruption: digital skills in non-digital roles, soft skills in digital roles, the growing demand for visual communication, and the integration of social media skills into a broad range of occupations,” said Sigelman.
These “softer skills” are harder to teach through purely online material—at least some in-person interaction is required. Less than half of the US population reports that they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, according to a 2018 survey by Gallup. Moreover, at least some of these attitudes are driven by the growing cost of higher education: over half of unenrolled adults report the cost of a college degree as a very important reason they have not continued their education, according to a 2022 report by Gallup.
But cost is not the only part of the equation. Universities are some of the “least engaged workplaces in the world,” and only 34% of university faculty are engaged at their jobs, according to Gallup.
Enter a metaverse-based upgrade to traditional higher education: merging augmented and virtual reality with the expansion of distributed ledger technologies provides new ways for students and instructors to interact with each other. Edverse announced a partnership with Polygon, an Ethereum scaling platform, to build a metaverse dedicated exclusively to education. The first-of-its-kind virtual education firm aims to “decentralize and democratize education” using blockchain technology.
“We envision an education landscape where we completely re-write the rules and definitions of the four key stakeholders – educators, students, creators and the promoters of education,” said Gautam Arjun, co-founder & CEO of Edverse. Redefining the way that people interact with each other has the potential to unlock new levels of engagement and understanding.
Whether it be educators or students, none seem to be engaged in the entire process… with a metaverse experience we are fostering a playful, yet purposeful, education space – the one that accelerates intelligence and advances the human race ahead, ensuring the students achieve and grasp more in the time they dedicate to educating themselves, while ensuring that the journey is enjoyable and enriching,” said Alok Patni, co-founder and CFO of Edverse.
Since the metaverse is scalable and allows for the incorporation of both “learn to earn” and “wear to earn” approaches to tokenization, there is the potential to flip the switch on the traditional model of funding higher education, which relies on student tuition and donors. There is also the potential to “self-sponsor your entire higher education, without even paying a penny,” Patni said.
Some traditional institutions of higher education are also beginning to pilot metaverse initiatives with virtual reality, such as Arizona State University through its Dreamscape Immersive and University of Nicosia’s Open Metaverse Initiative.
To be sure, the future of higher education requires scalable solutions that leverage technology as a tool, rather than an end in and of itself. Virtual and metaverse spaces are beginning to revolutionize the educational landscape — and traditional schools may soon have to play catch-up.